October 2006 - What Children Teach Us
What Children Teach Us: How to Get Employees to Behave like a Bunch of 6th Graders
By Kenny Moore
Intro: As we journey into the Fall season, I’m reminded of the words of e.e. cummings, "To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best to make you everybody else - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting." With prayers and affection for a successful battle.
Before working for a Fortune 500 company, I spent 15 years in a monastic community as a Catholic priest. One of my first assignments as a priest was to hear Confessions at a local boys’ high school. Being newly ordained, I was a bit nervous. The first young man who entered the confessional spoke in a soft whisper: "Bless me Father for I have sinned … I had impure thoughts." Seeing this as a teachable moment, I reminded him that having impure thoughts was a normal part of adolescence, but that these desires should not be actively pursued. "Did you entertain them?" I asked with priestly sensitivity. "No Father," he said with an air of matter-of-factness, "they entertained me."
I gave the boy Absolution, knowing that we both still had a lot to learn.
Over the years, I’ve come to see that youth regularly have lessons to teach us, as I was once again recently reminded.
Last spring, my son Matt informed me that he knew what he wanted to do when he grew up. "I want to make people laugh," was the way he phrased it. "How do you do that?"
I reminded him that unfortunately, much to his mother’s consternation, he was already pretty good at it. The businessman inside me interpreted his request to mean that as an adult he could be gainfully employed as a comic … or at least as an Executive Compensation consultant. I’m not sure there’s much of a difference there.
Either way, I figured there was a possible vocational choice at hand, so we signed him up for some acting lessons during the summer.
As school started in September, he was less interested in math and more focused on being in the school’s annual play. When it came time for auditions, he brought home a script to memorize. My wife and I had him practice it a few times, reminded him to speak his lines slowly and loudly - and then hoped for the best.
The day for tryouts came and that evening at dinner, we asked Matt how he fared. He said things went fine. "Did you remember all your lines?" my wife asked. "Yep," he said, "They even made me sing."
Sing? He never took a voice lesson in his life: he doesn’t know how to sing. Somehow, we’d forgotten to remind him of that. So when they asked him to get up and belt out a few bars from the soundtrack, he went on stage and sang.
He wound up getting the part.
It seems that kids don’t yet know they can’t do a lot of things – so they just move forward and improvise. Something we in business lost sight of a long time ago.
As every parent knows, having your child in a school play is a mixed blessing. Not only do you need to show up at each performance, you have a dutiful obligation to overlook mistakes and applaud generously.
An additional bonus for attending all performances is you get to see, up-front and close, these struggling youths rise to the occasion, overcome stage fright and manage the foibles of missed lines and falling scenery. It’s not only amusing. It’s inspiring.
In the face of mistakes, they choose to smile. When carefully orchestrated routines fall apart, they accommodate. If someone stumbles and falls, they pick him up - all without a hint of recrimination or embarrassment.
Children who didn’t know they could act, do so. Those with mediocre musical prowess sing out boldly. Young thespians lacking any comedic training have us rolling in the aisle. Oftentimes, unintentionally.
Having nightly sat through my son’s show, I walked away with some insights about running a business and living a life.
1 – If people say you’re not qualified, pay them no mind.
Don’t be constrained by the judgment of others. We’ve all been put on this earth for a purpose, which is known only to the Divine. Talents are awarded copiously for reasons that are not always clear. Our responsibility is to go public and use the gifts we’ve been given. Life has always had a way of disregarding the rules that society mindlessly imposes.
Qualifications are often artificial restrictions intended to keep those with enthusiasm relegated to the margins. As the educator John Taylor Gatto reminds us, "Professional interest is served by making what is easy to do seem difficult."
Contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, those who don’t do well on standardized tests do just fine in life. Raising a family, earning an income and enhancing one’s neighborhood seldom correlate to one’s SAT score. In the game of business, there’s no simple "right" answer. And as we all know from laboring in the marketplace, a lack of genius is often eclipsed by one’s generosity of spirit.
2 – When things don’t go as planned, giggle … and keep moving.
We’re not really in charge of much. Diligent planning on our part is a frivolous antidote for the serendipity of life. There are forces afoot that are beyond our control and we’re well served by greeting the hand of Fate with a welcoming smile. When Destiny delivers something other than what we were expecting, an impish sense of curiosity is what’s required. Many of us are working in fields for which we’ve had no academic training. We’ve excelled largely based on luck, opportunity and being in the right place at the right time. Enjoy it.
The monks used to say that an openness to surprise is one of the best preparations for Heaven. What the Divine has to offer, both here and beyond, far exceeds our expectations and is purposely designed to catch us off-guard. Life has in store much more than what we can image, so we need to show up and greet the mystery of life with a wink and a sense of playful enchantment.
Don’t believe everything the financial folks say. Much of what takes place in business doesn’t lend itself to quantifiable measurements. A profitable bottom-line is often more closely aligned with inspiration and passion than being able to calculate discounted cash flow.
3 – Others may recognize your talents before you do.
We are often blind to our own gifts. When we’re naturally good at something, we tend to discount its value. Our bosses, friends and family may more clearly discern our strengths than we do, Their feedback has overtures from the Divine and is uttered to encourage us to play the role for which we’ve been cast.
Arrogance and fear on our part are the sirens luring us to the rocky shores of self destruction. Humility and courage make for a better journey.
Occasionally, our talents remain hidden until life confronts us with a demonstrated need.
The ancient Greeks used to say that adversity reveals greatness; prosperity masks it.
Crisis, tragedy and other disturbing life events are regularly dispatched from the Beyond to elicit our dormant gifts. Rather than retreating from calamity, life invites us to move closer to it for the sake of our own growth and the betterment of the world. Daunting challenges have the potential to be repositioned as wonderful opportunities for blossoming and breaking forth.
4 – Mistakes make for new and entertaining opportunities.
Life would be boring if everything went according to plan. We’d never mature and our daily lives would be rote repetitions of yesterday’s activity. Mishaps are often portals to our personal growth and passage ways to self-discovery. They also reveal unmet needs and surprising opportunities for a vast array of personal contributions and new services.
General Omar Bradley said, "Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment."
We don’t need to attend another Executive Development program. The school of life provides us with countless opportunities to make our fair share of mistakes, gain some valuable life experiences and deepen ourselves as people and professionals.
5 – Performing with others is better than stealing the spotlight.
Basking in the glow of the limelight can make us blind to the rest of the action taking place on stage. We run the risk of believing that the audience is there in service of us, instead of the other way around. It’s when our talents mix with those of others that a true performance takes place. It’s entertaining, magnanimous and a celebration of community.
Let’s stop touting the top of the pyramid at the expense of those who make up its base. Business leaders couldn’t accomplish anything without the cooperation of the minions working behind them. Curtain calls and kudos need to go to the multitudes that have had a flavorful hand in the production. Giving recognition to the many instead of fawning over the few continues to remain a more refreshing way of doing business and living life.
6 – Be positive rather than punitive.
Companies that improve performance by annually dismissing the bottom 10% of their workforce lack foresight. This mean-spirited adherence to "Forced Ranking" undermines teamwork, turns coworkers into competitors and jettisons any semblance of creativity. Innovation seldom happens if there’s no room for collegiality. And never when bell-shaped curves rule the culture.
More than money, intrinsic motivation propels the masses. People want to do a good job and are longing to use their skills to have a positive impact on the business. It’s time to stop threatening our employees and mindlessly raising the bar. Leadership’s role is far more daunting: building solidarity and creating an environment where passion and differences can flourish.
Shakespeare knew what he was talking about
If all the world’s a stage, then we have a sacred responsibility to perform. Yes, mistakes will happen. We’ll forget our lines. We’ll fumble with props and embarrass ourselves to no end. And like generations before us, we’ll be terrified with stage fright.
But as the immortal Bard so aptly put it, "Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once."
So act courageously and be fearless. Practice your lines, pray to the gods and stop being so serious. And most importantly, get out there on life’s stage and play.
Fear is merely excitement without the breath. Practice your breathing, get connected to the excitement of new opportunities and prepare to give birth to a new world of possibilities.
P.S. If you’re thinking about writing me, give in to the temptation. I love getting mail ... and being influenced by what you have to say. Please e-mail me at kennythemonk [at] yahoo.com.
Copyright © 2006 Kenny Moore, all rights reserved to the author, article used with permission of the author. Kenny Moore is co-author of The CEO and the Monk: One Company’s Journey to Profit and Purpose (John Wiley and Sons, 2004), rated as one of the top ten best selling business books on Amazon.com. He is Corporate Ombudsman and Human Resources Director at a New York City Fortune 500 company. Reporting to the CEO, he is primarily responsible for awakening joy, meaning and commitment in the workplace. While these efforts have largely been met with skepticism, he remains eternally optimistic of their future viability.
Kenny has more than 20 years experience with managing change, developing leaders and healing the corporate community. He’s been profiled by Charles Osgood on CBS Sunday Morning News and interviewed by Tom Peters, the Wall Street Journal and Fast Company magazine regarding his unique leadership style. Kenny is the recipient of Notre Dame University’s 2006 Hesburg Award for his significant contribution to the field of business ethics.
His business practices are based on those of Louie Armstrong who said: "I am here in the service of Happiness." Louis died a rich and beloved man; his voice still rings in the ears (and hearts) of millions.
Prior to his work in corporate America, Kenny spent 15 years in a monastic community as a Catholic priest. Several years ago, he had the good fortune of being diagnosed with "incurable" cancer, at its most advanced stages. He underwent a year of experimental treatment at the National Cancer Institute and survived. Kenny came away from that experience recalling the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us." Kenny’s lifetime goal is to spend more of his time playing his music. Having dealt with both God and death, Kenny now finds himself eminently qualified to work with senior management on corporate change efforts.
Kenny is a watercolor artist, poet and photographer. He is Founding Director of Art for the Anawim, a not-for-profit charity that works with the art community in supporting the needs of terminally ill children and the inner-city poor. His poems have been published in several anthologies; one was selected as a semi-finalist in the North American Open Poetry Contest. Kenny lives in Totowa, New Jersey and is married to the "fair and beautiful" Cynthia. Together, they are fighting a losing battle of maintaining their mental stability while raising two growing boys. Kenny can be reached at kennythemonk [at] yahoo.com or (973) 956-8210.
Kenny's Upcoming Speaking Engagements:
LIVINGSTON, NJ: 10/14/2006 - Transition and Leadership Conference, SHRM of Morris and Central NJ chapters. Contact Sherrill Curtis: 201-674-7718
BEDFORD, NY: 10/22/2006 - Evening program at St. Mary’s Church in Bedford, NY. Contact Jane Peirce Wood, 914-234-2902
SAN FRANCISCO, CA: 10/25/2006 - the 2006 OD Network Annual Conference. See www.conference-board.org for details.
NEW YORK CITY, NY: 1/25/2007 - the Conference Board program "The Executive Coaching Conference." See www.conference-board.org for details; 3/7/2007 - the Conference Board program "Human Capital Metrics: Practices and Results." See www.conference-board.org for details.
CHICAGO, IL: 3/13/2007 - the Conference Board program "The Executive Coaching Conference." See www.conference-board.org for details
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